Mainstream media often incites rebuttals from Muslim women defending themselves against vapid stereotypes and negative portrayals. Ostensibly, these include “We are not oppressed,” ”We play sports,” “We are educated and have choices,” “We have agency and support those who do not,” and so on and so forth. Muslim women writing about inspiring feats of Muslim women are exposed to veil puns to highlight our achievements. Anything accomplished is “beyond the veil,” “from behind the burqa” and numerous other overused cliches.
Now it seems we are entering a new realm of writings by and about Muslim women: Muslim Women and Sexuality. Wait – what? Yes. I dread in that we now have “behind the covered boudoir” or “from beyond La Senza” to look forward to.
Recently there has been a barrage of articles published highlighting sexuality and, dare I say it, normalcy, of the intimate lives of the otherwise exotic and mysterious Muslim woman. A subject that is considered taboo in many cultures is being written of and addressed in different voices of Muslim women. Not since “progressive Muslim” Asra Nomani’s groundbreaking – er, bedbreaking rather – “Islamic Bill of Rights in the Bedroom” have we seen such a flurry of activity and discussion regarding Muslimah and their “intimate interests.”
Normally, I am reluctant to read pieces in mainstream media about Muslim women’s sexuality. They tend to be judgemental, vague or deconstructive and often based on reductive stereotypes about the sexual repression of Muslims, or on trying very hard to shatter assumptions by proving Muslims are as (ab)normal as the rest of the world.
We are also told ridiculous stories of how male clerics are constantly “protecting” women and men from harm’s way (aka exposure to anything titillating) – like buying produce. Because making fruit salad in Ramadan is absolutely arousing. *hijabdesk*. The story was later proven to be a hoax, but the message had already been industriously circulated.
There is also the constant finger-pointing at various Muslim cultures, by Western media, for being incapable of addressing issues of women’s sexuality.
Frankly, I am uninterested in reading articles about Muslim women and their desires and needs from anyone other than a Muslim woman or from publications unwilling to publish the voices of Muslim women. Muslimah Media Watch was created as a platform to fight against the pervasive portrayals of a Muslim woman as either “exotic sex slave, oppressed woman, or dangerous terrorist.”
As of late, there seems to be a barrage of “Muslim Sexperts” who write in an authoritative manner about the “forbidden wants and needs of Muslim women” almost as some type of pseudo-erotica.
Admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised that not all the articles that were recently published were presented in a manner that was stereotyping or hypersexualizing Muslim women. Obviously, not everyone agrees with what they read but that the topic is hot these days is something that needs to be further examined.
The Daily Telegraph recently offered a piece by Shelina Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf, who writes about her own research into what’s available as resources for Muslim women on topics such as sexual fulfillment and counselling. She addresses the need for access to sexual health education. One woman Janmohamed spoke with, who is trying to create seminars to help women identify and address their sexual needs, request anonymity: “I’m sticking my neck out here.” The point about discussion and breaking silence and creating access to women with regards to their sexual health is imperative.
Janmohamed’s piece actually struck a chord with many. Eren wrote a reflection on the importance of Sexual Health Education as well and access to information. Promptly came the reply to the Telegraph article. There was a feeble attempt at humour from a Huffington Post blogger, who minimized the importance of Janmohamed’s piece by reducing her perspective to Arab stereotypes and unrelated tales of her high school romps. She finally comes up with this gem: “So, maybe the act of sex is not so foreign to Muslim women, especially not the ones selling vibrators and running online sex shops.”
This particular quotes bothers me because it infers that sex is in fact “foreign” to Muslim women to begin with; too covered and oppressed to know about intimacy. Highest rates of procreation on the planet, anyone?
Immediately following came another, far more detailed article from Muslim Matters. The piece, in a series of vignettes from various women identified by their marital status to protect their privacy, includes important elements of religious practice as well as specific information from ahadith about women’s sexual rights. (Who knew that French kissing was Sunnah?) The article covers everything from women’s orgasms to role playing to dissatisfaction and inequality in physical relationships. It also presupposes that both parties are consenting and married, which is not always a reality for Muslim women. The article falls short of reiterating how important communication is in the scenario.
That mainstream Muslim publications are addressing issues such as sexual health is excellent – surprising but most welcome. Muslim Matters also added an article written by an unmarried woman articulating her ideas and her concerns regarding her sexual life after she is married. Muslim Matters has included a category labelled Sex & the Ummah, which can be used for information purposes. Not all of the issues regarding sexual health will be addressed by mainstream Islamic sites, but to offer discussion is a positive step.
The ever-classy Jezebel magazine also hopped on the Muslimah sexuality bandwagon (there’s an image…) with a contribution of their own, insisting that Muslim women are really NOT shy and pious. “While most Islamic societies go to great lengths to make sure all things sex-related remain out of the public eye, sex between a married man and woman is, by Islamic jurisprudence, allowed to get steamy.”
Thank you Jezebel for your groundbreaking work in this field and for using phrases like “Islam, surprisingly…” and “All of which may make many a Muslim woman blush,” because that’s not reductive at all – particularly when discussing Muslim women and their intimate lives, completely missing the point that sexuality is a normal part of Islamic faith. One can get steamy with their partner without it affecting their level of piety.
Not every woman craves to be part of the Obedient Wives Club. Shocking, I know.
There are few existing forums for which men and women can ask ‘technical’ questions, as many may be too shy to approach a family member or friend. The site Love Insha’Allah does have a Q&A section with regards to intimacy with answers from men and women, as do many Muslim learning sites – SunniPath for example.
There are a few discussion forums and research projects and blog pieces relating to sexuality and Muslims – without minimizing how sexuality is woven into our everyday existence. Some of the websites’ admin are anonymous or keep their identities private for safety reasons. The fact that they are running and provide information for Muslim women is important. They confidentiality is accorded but so is the agency. The internet can be a great source of information and help for people who may not feel comfortable in sex shop or purchasing material in a store or who would simply like to peruse and research from the privacy of their homes.
Can we attribute this sudden interest in the intimate lives of Muslim women to the arrival of spring, and blossoming flowers, buzzing bees? Or is it simply a continued fixation with the unknown?
Has #MuslimRage perhaps morphed into #RageAboutMuslimahLibido ?
If so, Muslim women have strong voices. Far beyond any fetish-esque or dismissive are the places in which we can write, reflect and share ideas in a setting that we are comfortable with. While I may not agree with all opinions expressed, I am certainly not unhappy with them being published by Muslim women and giving other Muslimahs access to the conversations.
The wider the discussion on sexuality is an important one, and also one that doesn’t seem to be getting brushed under our veils any time soon.